Evacuation Level 3 — Forest Fires Remind You What Matters Most
I’m sweeping ash under the hydrangeas. There is no point as it continues to fall, will continue to fall. It’s chalky grey and beige with small curls of singed black. This powdery confetti used to be enormous trees towering an hour’s drive from here. Maple. Alder. Western hemlock. I’ve lived here most of my life but I can only name some of them by sight. And suddenly these magnificent beings are just clouds of dust, small plumes billowing up around my ankles and burning my eyes.
James kissed me in a clearing of these trees once — along the river more than twenty years ago. He woke me up with a kiss in the forest. Sure, we were in a tent with his dog but still very Sleeping Beauty for a couple of beer snobs who stayed up late debating politics among the cedar trees and Douglas firs. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t love the Grateful Dead or Hillary Clinton as much as he did.
At night you can’t tell the dogwood from the cottonwood unless the moon is high. I’m not sure I can even tell in the daylight. There is bear grass and sword ferns along the hiking trails, some poison oak, and I still wonder if any of the big mossy rocks made their way here from the Missoula floods. We went skinny-dipping that night. 12,000 years after these rocks might have arrived and there I was, hopping naked from one to the next until I got to the bone-chilling invigorating water. It was a perfect night in the Western Cascades.
The McKenzie River is a snow-melt tributary that parallels Highway 126. It flows over both the Sahalie and Koosah waterfalls. It’s beautiful. Easy rafting but for a few Class IVs, Martin’s Rapids and Brown’s Hole.
But on Monday one Christmas tree farm caught fire and within two days two communities had gone up in flames and raged west. I don’t know if St. Benedict’s is still standing. And now the winds have carried that ash over the Mohawk Valley ridge and into my hometown. Entire trees are now just ash and particulate matter, parts per million.
Yesterday, everyone woke up to a smoggy dystopian sky and a faceted gemstone red sun that looked more like a blood moon. My friend is a Chicago transplant and an early riser. I woke up to his text: Have you looked outside yet? The apocalypse has arrived. An eery dull orange glowed through the blinds and I was scared to look.
Just a day before I was swimming in the Winberry Reservoir, remembering how much I prefer rivers when I tried to un-suction my feet from the mud and kick the silt off my ankles. I don’t know if the trees we sat under are still standing.
Now, everyone is asking two questions: Where can I go and what should I bring?
This is not the first time I’ve contemplated the hypothetical. “What would you grab if you had to flee in the middle of the night?” But the hypothetical has never been imminent. It’s never stung my eyes and hurt my throat. I can smell it. I smell like it. This is the first time I’ve gotten cash, (ash under my fingernails just from pushing the ATM buttons), filled up the gas tank and asked myself what to take as a fire burns so close that my hair and clothes smell like camping.
I realize that I value my Nana’s paintings more than anything. But they are too large to pack. Some of them are too heavy to carry by myself. I start sorting through the smallest, most portable family heirlooms. I look for my great-grandmother’s fake sapphire ring, my Nana’s mother. She was German. I’ve loved it since I was a child. Rosaries from my grandmothers on both sides. I would never wear them but I can make an exception in an emergency. I layer them around my neck and realize I can’t find the green one my best friend got for me in Ireland. I stack on bracelets and rings from exes with my grandmother’s wedding set and a thin gold band from my parents for a birthday so long ago I don’t even remember which one. I feel like 1980s Madonna and sleep with all of it on in case they say we have to evacuate in the middle of the night.
We wake up to a slightly clearer sky but the same garnet sun. They evacuate three prisons and call in the National Guard to help with the fires to the north. I consider collecting some of the ash like they did when Mt. St. Helen erupted. I could bottle in as a reminder of our fragile tempestuous residence here on this beautiful planet. But wouldn’t that just be one more material thing to pack?
I start writing to distract myself. I reconsider the baubles. I know that my beloved book collection can be replaced. All that matters is my family and my friends — which reminds me of my external hard drive and memory cards, jump drives with pictures from beautiful trips and my niece and nephew as babies. My laptop so I can keep working. My cellphone. They matter more than my camera or lenses or TV because they store memories, all the photos I never got around to printing. Which I wouldn’t have been able to pack anyway. Sometimes procrastinating doesn’t matter in the long run. I pack chargers, my toothbrush, glasses, facemasks, keys — not unlike traveling any other time during the pandemic as fresh new crises continue to month-by-month dominate our lives. But now we can smell the danger and I am terrified.
The news says “zero-percent contained”. 190 firefighters are battling to contain it while rescuing those who haven’t fled yet. They say we need 1,000. This morning I read that a boy is missing. His grandma didn’t survive, his mom is in the hospital and he was last seen running. His name was Wyatte and he was a from a small town I’d never heard of. By the time I look him up again they have found him dead. Lying next to his dog. He was 12. Nothing matters but your loved ones. And strangers’ loved ones.
Even these beautiful paintings that few people love but me don’t matter. The mannequin painted like Cinque Terra, the terra cotta tiles carved like St. Peter’s Door of the Dead, the small sculpture from Denmark — I adore them all but they don’t matter. In fact, none of the art matters. Even though I have whittled most of my worldly possessions down to just art and books and a few things with sentimental value I didn’t realize how attached I still am to these material things — their beauty and their history. My connection to my family and my past. I’ve always thought my inheritance was these museum-perfect paintings that have only been featured in occasional art shows, these rosaries and our favorite family photos.
But my nephew inherited my dad’s dimples. And they are both safe. My sister looks like my mom. They both have curly hair and they are both safe. My niece just learned how to say ‘purple’. She can count to ten in Spanish. I want to learn French and Arabic but those books don’t matter anymore. Only our loved ones matter. We are our own inheritance.
My friends are safe and have evacuation plans. They are going to be ok. My ex texts me from Nuevo Leon. It’s rainy season in Mexico. He tells me it’s pouring there right now and he wishes he could send it here. I understand rain dances.
I text my other ex, an optical engineer, and ask him why the sun is such a deep red and the sky is orange.
“Because smoke and ash scatter light and blue scatters the most, red goes through,” he says.
I’m sad and I’m scared to go to sleep. I’m scared I’ll wind up sleeping in my car and then spontaneously grateful I even have a car, a sister up north I can drive to if they don’t close the freeway.
Instead of packing anything else I’m just going to pray. I am praying for containment. I am praying for the firefighters and their families. I am praying for all of the families who’ve already lost so much. I’m praying for miraculous rain —a Biblical opening in the smoky skies that will soak the West Coast. I’m praying for all of the wild animals, terrified, who are not preoccupied by shiny objects or physical moorings. I pray that when they run with their families they will all find safety too.
Please be careful out there, friends. Stay safe. Be brave. Be kind.
UPDATE: Mexican firefighters arrived in Medford, Oregon to help battle the blaze: Captain Aldo Iván Ruiz, Captain Juan Armando Alvarez Villegas, Sargent Jorge Luis Anguiano Jasso, Sargent Luis Alfonso Campos Martínez, firefighter Miguel Ángel Hernández Lara and mayor Alejandro Navarro from Guanajuato. All rights © Ambar Rodriguez, KTVL News 10